A Guest Blog by Erich Hoyt
On the morning of May 30, off Tofino, British Columbia, an orca calf, complete with fresh fetal folds and typical orange (instead of white) patches, surfaced between two mature females of J Pod.
There is always joy at the sight and sounds, the presence of a new baby. When that baby is a several hundred pound killer whale, born to J Pod in the southern resident orca community, the event turns into big news. This is a very welcome occurrence as the southern community has lost most of their calves in recent years and their numbers have dwindled to 75 — now 76 — individuals, down from a high of more than 100 before SeaWorld and other aquariums ransacked these pods with repeated captures in the 1960s and 1970s. The captures in BC and Washington State waters ended in 1976 but the southern orca community has had compounded pressures and threats including boat traffic, noise, pollution loads and reduced numbers of their preferred food, Chinook salmon. The southern community has been given endangered status by both the U.S. and Canadian governments.
In the new edition of Orca: The Whale Called Killer, my memoir of ten summers spent with killer whales, I talk about the status of the southern orca community. I can’t help but compare them to the northern community in Johnstone Strait off northern Vancouver Island — the main subjects of my book. After spending many days with the A pods in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as some time with the B, C, D and G pods, I revisited northern Vancouver Island a few years ago to see some of the same individuals still alive, as well as sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of the whales I came to know as individuals 40+ years ago — Nicola, Stubbs, Top Notch and others. The northern community, by contrast to the southern, has grown in number every year and now has more than 260 individuals in more than 16 pods and 30 matrilines.
I also devote a chapter in the new book to the resident communities of Russian Far East orcas as part of a project I have directed in Kamchatka and the Commander Islands since 1999. In all, we have photographically identified more than 2,000 orcas, sorted most of them into pods, clans, communities, analyzed their dialects and their food preferences. There are also transient marine-mammal eating killer whale communities — different ones in Russia and in B.C.-Washington and Alaska. And there are so-called offshore orcas who feed on sharks and other fish so far only found in the eastern North Pacific. All of these North Pacific killer whales can be divided into at least three separate ecotypes and more than 10 different communities, or breeding units.
Each of these whale communities has its own character, food habits, social preferences and different dialects. For much of human history, killer whales were feared, hated and shot at by fishermen and other mariners. By studying them, and spending hours that have turned into many years with them, we have seen a revolution in our understanding of the orca to the point where we care deeply about them. We have begun to see that their health and future on this planet is closely linked to our own.
Will the new J Pod baby survive? Mortality to age 1 was calculated for British Columbia-Washington killer whales some years ago at close to 50%. The new baby has been seen again in mid-June, and whale researchers and watchers all along the coast will be hoping for more sightings through the summer and autumn months.
Erich Hoyt is the author of Orca: The Whale Called Killer, Encycopledia of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and more than 20 other books. He is Research Fellow and Healthy Seas Program Lead for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and co-founder and director of the Far East Russia Orca Project. The updated 5th edition of Orca: The Whale Called Killer, containing the original text with extensive updates and more than 90 new photos, illustrations and maps, will be published in Fall 2019.
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